Tag Archives: soul

I’ve Never Heard… Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

Or, truth to tell, any Stevie Wonder record. Not all the way through. I’ve heard large tracts of the one I’m most familiar with, Songs in the Key of Life (I have my mother’s old vinyl copy at home), but none of them in their entirety.

So I decided to pick one, and ended up with Talking Book, though it was almost Innervisions. But Talking Book has Superstition on it, so that was that.

Like the Eagles and Pink Floyd, the two bands I looked at last year for posts in this series, Stevie Wonder occupies such a huge place in the canon of English-language pop music that you (or, more specifically, I) can have heard none of his albums in their entirety yet still feel pretty au fait with the man’s oeuvre. I’ve known music by Stevie Wonder for almost literally as long as I can remember; I Just Called to Say I Love You came out when I was around three, and I remember hearing it in my parents’ house in Maldon, which we moved from when I was four and a half.

But as I got older, I began to find a lot about Wonder’s music that I didn’t like. The floridity of his vocal style was at odds with the much simpler approaches taken by my favourite singers. The maximalism of his sensibility was counter to my preference for more minimally arranged and produced music. I found myself irritated by his sometimes clumsy lyrics that messed with syntax or stress to force a rhyme. Too many of his songs, particularly those on Songs in the Key of Life, go on far too long.

So as I acquired many albums by his peers in 1970s soul and R&B – Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Al Green – I picked up none by Stevie. I’d essentially decided that he was never going to be my guy, even as I had a couple of dozen songs by him, and listened to them and enjoyed them, and would never have argued with anyone proclaiming his greatness. Or even his genius.

So that’s my background with the great man. Let’s dive in.

You Are the Sunshine of My Life, which opens Talking Book, is a classic. There’ll be no contrarian take from me on this one. His inversion of the natural stress of the word “rescue” is an example of the kind of bone I find myself constantly picking with Wonder the lyricist (the clumsiness takes me out of the song as surely as an out-of-time backbeat, a bad edit or an egregiously flat note would do), but still, there’s so much to love here, from the gorgeous Fender Rhodes sounds to the buoyant congas, and the lovely, inclusive touch of having backing singers Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves sing the first two verses.

Maybe Your Baby is for me the weakest track on the album by a distance, so it’s a shame that it comes so early in the album. It’s not exactly bad – the verse groove is compelling enough, and the multitracked and varispeeded backing vocals are a creative arrangemental touch – but at nearly seven minutes, the track goes on far, far too long. Ray Parker’s soloing is a pretty major mark against for me, too. His tone, like an amplified bee buzzing around your head, is annoying, and without wishing to be cruel, he’s not the player you want pouring it out at this length. Wonder should have used Jeff Beck. But we’ll get back to him.

You and I moves back to ballad territory, with Wonder this time accompanying himself on piano, with a Theremin-like sound from TONTO (something else we’ll come back to). It’s a lovely performance, one of Wonder’s more restrained vocals, largely in the lower-middle of his wide range, where for me his voice sounds richest and most full. The use of delay on his voice gives it a slightly trippy, spacey touch that I think works brilliantly for the song.

Tuesday Heartbreak is a showcase for Wonder’s use of interweaving keyboards (Fender Rhodes and a prominent Clavinet), but something’s a bit off kilter about the vocal. It sounds nasal and pitchy, so much so that I wonder if something was awry with the tape speed when Wonder tracked his vocal. Whatever it is, something’s off, as I’ve never felt that Wonder was out of tune on any other other song. The backing vocals of Deniece Williams and Shirley Brewer could have been a touch higher in the mix, and I’m seldom well disposed towards David Sanborn’s alto (always so bright and hard-sounding), but the extended voicings Wonder plays are cool, and I love that change to Bb diminished in the verse.

Side one ends with You’ve Got It Bad Girl, one of the record’s most attractive pieces, and a song that illustrates the creative potency of Wonder’s partnership with engineers and co-producers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff.

Cecil and Margouleff were the owners-operators of TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra). TONTO was, and still is, the largest analogue synthesiser ever constructed – a room-sized behemoth of old-school analogue synthesis. Its many, many modules allowed its operators to construct new instrumental textures in real time, or produce credible simulations of real-world instruments.

tonto

On the jazzy You’ve Got It Bad Girl, Wonder, Cecil and Margouleff created a layer cake of keyboard timbres: Moog bass, Fender Rhodes chords and TONTO melody lines, several of which are instantly recognisable to anyone as “Stevie Wonder” synth sounds. Electronic it may be, but it’s also a wonderfully human and lyrical sound, so it beautifully complements the record’s acoustic elements: Wonder’s impressive drum performance (not “and-a-1, and-a-2” swing, looser and more impressionistic than that, but still clearly drawing on jazz), his gentle and intimate lead vocal, and the backing vocals of Gilstrap and Groves. A singular creation, but it works amazingly well.

Before the sessions for Talking Book began, Jeff Beck’s people at CBS told Wonder that Beck was a big fan, and would be keen to work with him in some capacity. Wonder did not need a vast pool of players to call on, as he was capable of playing almost everything himself, but he did tend to call in lead guitarists, so was open to playing with Beck. An agreement was made that Beck would play on Talking Book and in return Wonder would write him a song.

Superstition was the result of a jam session between Beck and Wonder that took place before the album sessions. Beck, apparently, came up with the opening drum pattern and Wonder improvised the Clavinet riff over the top. The two tracked a demo there and then, which Wonder took away to finish. In some versions of the story, Wonder loved it too much to give it to Beck without cutting his own version too; others say Motown told Wonder it was too good to give away and insisted that Stevie’s version came out first. Whichever is true, we’re lucky that Wonder did record it*, as the Beck, Bogert and Appice version is a sludgy mess with no verve or bounce, whereas Wonder’s version is the finest thing he ever recorded. Bar nothing.

A final word about the Superstition drum track. It’s a little sketchy in a couple of places, but Wonder’s drum performance on Superstition can stand alongside literally anything in the funk canon. Even if Jeff Beck came up with it.

Superstition crossfades into Big Brother. Wonder’s use of his Clavinet to create an acoustic guitar-like tone, coupled with the African-style percussion (djembe, I think), give this song a different feel to anything else on the record. It’s really cool, as is his harmonica playing. Lyrically, it’s probably the angriest song on the record (“I live in the ghetto/You just come to visit me ’round election time”; “You’ve killed all our leaders”), and a little blunter and sharper than I was expecting. On this song at least, anger sharpened Wonder’s lyrics into something cold and hard, with no syllable wasted.

Blame it on the Sun repeats the acoustic-guitar keyboard trick even more credibly (I guess from the sleevenotes, it’s the instrument referred to as a “harpsichord”, but Wonder plays it like lead acoustic guitar). It’s the arrangement’s most notable feature, but it’s hard not to be swept away by the song itself, which may be my favourite of the Talking Book tracks I didn’t already know. Those diminished chords in the choruses (under “the wind and the trees”) are heartbreaking, and the backing vocals by Gilstrap and Groves are sumptuous

Looking for Another Pure Love features the twin guitars of Jeff Beck and Howard “Buzz” Feiten. Over another of Wonder’s one-man-band arrangements of drums, Moog bass and Fender Rhodes, the pair play harmonised scalar lines, shadowing Wonder’s vocal melody. It’s a gentle and intimate production, with every nuance of Beck’s lead playing audible in the mix. Once again, the backing vocals – this time by Debra Wilson, Shirley Brewer and Loris Harvin – lift every chorus.

Final track I Believe (When I Fall in Love) is the third of the album’s masterpieces. Another of Wonder’s one-man sonic fantasias, its dreamy verses (carried by keyboards and a vaguely threatening Moog bass) are paid off by a slowly rising bridge and a chorus of cautious optimism that only gives way to anything close of celebration at the very end of the song.

As a recap of many of the moods explored by the album’s other songs, it’s a fitting end to a record that’s very good indeed, if not always quite at the level of its three most famous songs. After familiarising myself thoroughly with Talking Book over the last couple of weeks, I feel like it’s obviously the classic it’s always held to be. It has a couple of weaker moments, but Wonder’s sense of quality control was pretty tight on this one. And anyway, one or two lightweight songs or failed sonic experiments are understandable when you factor in that Wonder was making one record a year in the first half of the seventies. I’ve learned things, too, about the craft that went into these records: the creativity of Stevie’s arrangements and his work layering keyboard textures and harmonic parts, as well as his partnership with Cecil and Margouleff, which led to the creation of wonderful new timbres and atmospheres. While I do prefer the low end sound of the Stevie Wonder records that feature a bass guitarist, I’ve also got more of an appreciation for how he built rhythm tracks from Moog bass and his own drum performances.

Stevie Wonder’s records are probably never going to be among my very favourites – I’ve come around to more decorative singers in the last five or 10 years, but his sensibility is still a long way from that of the artists I tend to love most – but getting to know his albums was probably overdue for me. Having got to grips with Talking Book, I’ve already got Innervisions on my iPod**, and who knows, one day I may even get through the whole of Songs in the Key of Life without skipping the codas.

talking_book

*The incident strained the realtionship between the two considerably, and Beck remains convinced that his version would have been a huge hit had it come out first. It wouldn’t. It’s not even a tenth of the record that Stevie’s is.

**Yes, I still use an iPod Classic. 120gb. I work a lot on my music and Mel’s, and projects for folks like James McKean and Yo Zushi, so I don’t want to have to listen to them as MP3s.

 

 

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Double Live Gonzos, part 5: Live – Donny Hathaway

Welcome to the series finale! It’s been fun reconnecting with some old favourites. I’m going to finish with the record I know least well of the bunch. I’ve known it for a mere 18 months. My apologies for keeping you waiting for this: I was ill one weekend, then away the next, so I’ve been scribbling this 20 minutes at a time during lunchbreaks. Anyway, it’s been fun. Maybe I’ll pick five more and do this again next year.

“It’s unlikely any party we ever attend will be as great as that documented on these recordings from two shows,” said Quietus writer Wyndham Wallace discussing Donny Hathaway’s 1972 live album, simply called Live. I’d reserve that particular accolade for Exile on Main Street, which sounds like the greatest party in the world going on in the room next door. Wallace does identify the key to Live, though – its communality. Sentimental I may be, but nothing gets me like music bring people together, and no live album documents that happening more clearly, or more movingly than this.

A 50-minute single-disc album, Live‘s songs were culled from two separate shows: one at the Troubadour in LA in August 1971, and one at the Bitter End in New York two months later. The band was nearly the same for both shows: Fred White (later of Earth, Wind and Fire) on drums, Willie Weeks on bass, Mike Howard on rhythm guitar and Earl DeRouen on congas. Phil Upchurch played lead guitar at the Troubadour, replaced by Cornell Dupree for the Bitter End gig.

The players are superb throughout, especially White and Weeks, and Hathaway is in excellent voice. More interested in singing good songs than in furthering his rep as a writer, he concentrates mainly on material by others, tackling Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, John Lennon’s Jealous Guy and Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend. All three of those songs were less than a year old, yet You’ve Got a Friend and What’s Going On are greeted with rapturous applause and screams of recognition from the audience. Clearly they had become classics in a matter of months.

The album begins, audaciously, with What’s Going On. It was a brave move to cover a song of this quality by a singer of Marvin Gaye’s talent, and you might think that, however sturdy the song is as a piece of writing, a live version sung by someone other than Gaye and lacking the strings and horns of the original recording would be just a shadow of the song we all know. It’s a testament to Hathaway and his band that you’d be wrong. He and the band pull it off handsomely.

The power of the Motown sound was simplicity. Other than James Jamerson, the players stuck to simple parts, executed flawlessly. Hathaway and his crew only numbered six players (his electric piano, two guitars, bass, drums and congas), so they all had what any Funk Brother would have considered a luxurious amount of space, and they filled that space wisely. James White plays some expansive drum fills later in the song,  while one of the guitarists (Phil Upchurch?) adds melodic interjections based on the backing vocal arrangement, in call and response with Hathaway’s vocal. Willie Weeks, meanwhile, pays due respect to Jamerson by more or less recreating the great man’s celebrated bass line. No extra stuff necessary.

Towards the end of the song, the band play a jazzy four-chord turnaround. This bit of harmonic playfulness serves as a prelude to the pair of long instrumentals that dominate the album, The Ghetto and Everything is Everything (Voices Inside), on which the band will really show what it can do instrumentally.

The first of them is The Ghetto, which may be familiar to those who don’t know the original track as the hook on Too Short’s 1990 single of the same name.

The live performance, taken just a hair faster than the album cut, is dominated by Hathaway’s Wurlitzer electric piano, but Weeks’s kinetic bass, Mike Howard’s guitar comping and Earl DeRouen’s congas play vital supporting roles, all growing more agitated as the track developments. After Hathaway’s impressive solo ends, he introduces DeRouen, the keys and guitars take a backseat, and DeRouen, Weeks and White take the spotlight. After a couple of minutes, DeRouen and White break it down further, beginning a three-minute break during which the pair play in a Afro-Latin style (I want to say Cuban, but I lack the ear to identify the particular style), before Hathaway, assuming the role of the music teacher, teaches the men and women in the audience two lines he wants them to chant for him: the simple, familiar “the ghetto” for the men, and “talkin’ ’bout the ghetto” for the women. As scholar and Hathaway fan Emily J Lordi points out in her book on the album, Hathaway’s music is full of moments like this, and the very reason that The Ghetto and Everything is Everything (Voices Inside) have words at all is that Hathaway knew how powerful a communal experience they could become in concert.

To skip forward a track (we’ll come back to Hey Girl), Hathaway’s reading of You’ve Got a Friend works in the same way: its power lies in the extent to which the audience becomes part of the performance and enact the very message of the song.

At the chorus, responding to how many people are singing along with him, Hathaway doesn’t sing the melody in the chorus; he steps back after the first four words, lets the audience carry it, enjoys the moment and sings a little harmony and a little counterpoint. He sounds like he’s singing the whole second half of the song through a huge grin. He encourages the audience to carry on singing the title phrase during the outro and , satisfied with what he’s hearing, remarks “this might be a record here”; this despite having been asked by Atlantic not to mention that the shows were being recorded.

Hathaway and Roberta Flack had recorded a duet version of You’ve Got a Friend around the time he played the Troubadour show in October 1971. It was released in May 1971 (the same day as James Taylor’s), and it’s perfectly good, but it doesn’t capture the communality that makes the performance on Live so powerful and life affirming. How could it? Hathaway and Flack were just two people. At the Troubadour on that August night in 1971, Hathaway was joined in song by hundreds, who let him know unequivocally that he had a friend too. What a song, and what a singer.

Hey Girl is the final track from the Troubadour half of the album. If the album has a weak moment, it’s probably this. Hey Girl, a tricky composition by Earl DeRouen full of restless modulations, seems a little gauche in the company of songs by Gaye, King and (later) John Lennon. The modulations, impressive on a music-theory level and played with aplomb by the band, don’t mask the fact that the tune is hard to get a handle on, and the lyric lacks any hook phrases you can hang on to, other than the title. Why it was used and, say, the Bitter End recording of Leon Russell’s A Song For You* wasn’t is a bit of a mystery.

The second half of the album was recorded over several shows at the New York club the Bitter End. Unlike the Troubadour, the Bitter End was a dry venue (no alcohol on the premises), and, posits Cornell Dupree, who took over from Phil Upchurch on lead guitar, this is likely a big reason that the New York audience was rather more restrained than the Troubadour crowd. Nevertheless, Hathaway and his band were again in excellent form.

The first track on this side is Little Ghetto Boy, written by Earl DeRouen and Charles Howard. The song is dominated by its long verses, and has no real chorus, so initially seems as evanescent as Hey Girl, even while Hathaway’s delivery becomes more and more passionate. But when the verses are eventually supplanted by the band singing in unison “Everything has got to get better”, while Hathaway ad libs freely around them, it’s the moment of focus, of catharsis even, that Hey Girl lacked, and so it’s much more successful, both as a song and as a performance.

We’re Still Friends is a heavy 6/8 blues (somewhat akin in feel to Led Zeppelin’s Since I’ve Been Loving You, but a little lighter on its feet), decorated by Dupree’s spine-tingling lead guitar. It’s one of only two tracks on the album on which Hathaway has a writing credit (the other is The Ghetto), which may explain its presence on the album, but it earns its spot through a really strong performance, and a vulnerable vocal from Hathaway that switches mood repeatedly; sometimes the singer’s acknowledgment of this “strange and wonderful” friendship seems straightforwardly celebratory, but at other times it seems a mask for a despair that the singer can’t bring himself to acknowledge.

Jealous Guy, from John Lennon’s Imagine album, had only been out a few weeks when Hathaway and his band tackled it at the Bitter End. It’s a radical reworking of the song, as radical as the reinvention Lennon gave it when he turned Child of Nature (written in Rishikesh while on spiritual retreat) into Jealous Guy, a song of quasi-penitence addressed, as most of his songs were in the 1970s, to Yoko Ono.

Hathaway gives Jealous Guy a slow quarter-note feel with, bizarrely, barrelhouse piano interjections. It shouldn’t work. The effect should be bathetic. It almost is. Yet somehow, the audacity pays off, and it works brilliantly. The only thing I don’t like about the performance is the moment when he sings “I don’t want nobody looking at you”. Lordi praises this as undercutting the hypocrisy of Lennon’s text by exposing it, but to me it’s too obvious a strategy. I feel like it’s clear in Lennon’s recording, and Bryan Ferry’s, that the singer is merely excusing his behaviour rather than truly trying to atone. This tension at the heart of the song is better left implicit. Nonetheless, Hathaway’s vocal performance is impassioned, and the arrangement is wonderfully imaginative.

Voices Inside (Everything is Everything) finishes the album. Although it’s positioned as the closer on the album, and works well there, the full live album from the Bitter End reveals it was actually The Ghetto that closed the set. Nonetheless, it’s a 13-minute soul-jazz party, with four solos from Hathaway, Mike Howard, Cornell Dupree and Willie Weeks (the “baddest bass player in the country”), whose solo is a masterpiece of tension building. Dupree is excellent, too – fluid and lyrical, in contrast to Howard’s tense and rather dissonant passage, full of bent notes on his guitar. At times, Hathaway can be heard, off mic, singing the “I hear voices, I see people” refrain. Perhaps the New York audience was less familiar with him than the LA crowd, but they don’t join in. It’s a bit of a shame, but still, it’s a pretty amazing way to close the album, and reminds us again of the breadth of Hathaway’s musical vision – to label him merely (merely!) a soul singer when he operated at this level as an improviser is absurdly reductive.

Unlike the other live records I’ve written about, this one has made me work. I’m far less familiar with Donny Hathaway than I am with the rest of the artists I’ve written about, and to put what I was hearing in its proper context, I’ve gone through his studio records, his other live albums and read a bunch of articles and books. (That’s part of why this has taken longer than I planned.) I’ve seldom been more glad I’ve put the effort in though. Hathaway, it seems to me, is undervalued as an artist, and often excluded by rock writers and canon-formers in favour of Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder.

Sure, in a hard-headed analysis he maybe didn’t operate at Gaye’s level as a record maker, at Wonder’s level as a writer or Franklin’s level as a sheer vocal force, but still, a music-critic discourse that makes insufficient room to celebrate and analyse the gifts and accomplishments of Donny Hathaway (and if you want proof of that, Lordi’s book is the first and only book on the man) is excluding an artist of rare achievement.

hathaway live

*This would surface on the posthumous 1980 live collection In Performance.

 

 

 

NYCNY – Daryl Hall

We’ve talked about Daryl Hall before, and even relatively recently. But there was only room in February’s entry on She’s Gone, which you’ll remember I put forward as one of my absolute favourite records, to touch in the briefest possible fashion on Sacred Songs, Hall’s first solo album, recorded in 1977 and eventually released by RCA in 1980.

Hall was not the only prescient musician who appears to have felt the tides turning against them around 1976 and 1977 and responded by reinventing themselves (Peter Gabriel, Neil Young and to some extent David Bowie did likewise), but when listening to Sacred Songs, Lindsey Buckingham always comes to mind.

But Sacred Songs is stranger even than Fleetwood Mac’s endlessly rewarding Tusk. Despite the note on the sleeve that said “Special thanks from the band to Lindsey Buckingham”, Tusk is not an auteur work. Buckingham may have wanted Fleetwood Mac to become the Clash, but that was never even close to possible. The band contained two other singer-songwriters, neither of whom had any real wish to follow him down that road. And so when producing Stevie Nicks’s and Christine McVie’s songs, Buckingham dutifully gave them relatively straightforward treatments, only occasionally lacing them with the off-kilter touches that characterised his own material on Tusk. So Buckingham pulls in one direction with his songs, Nicks and McVie pull in another with theirs, but the mediator between the two factions is, strangely, Buckingham himself. One moment he was cackling his way maniacally through the bizarre What Makes You Thing You’re the One, the next he was empathetically layering endless delicate guitar and vocal overdubs on to Nicks’s oceanic Sara, possibly her masterpiece.

Sacred Songs covers similarly broad territory. Hall allows himself to be everything he can be on the record. A ballad like Why Was it So Easy could have fit happily on any Hall & Oates album, but NYCNY is genuinely startling in its aggression. This song would certainly not have fit on Abandoned Luncheonette.

The standard critical line on Sacred Songs is that it’s the result of exposure to art rock, punk and new wave while living in New York and hanging out with Robert Fripp. And that seems almost certainly true. But, as with Buckingham’s Tusk-era material, NYCNY is fascinating in the ways it fails to be punk rock; after all, an imperfect copy of an original idea tells us as much, maybe more, about the copier than the copied. NYCNY is mixed dry and close, the musicians’ playing is clipped and precise, Hall hits too many notes over too many octaves to ever be confused with Johnny Rotten, and he can’t sneer like Tom Verlaine. Above all, he’s exuberant in a way that few punk rockers would have allowed themselves to be.

Sacred Songs isn’t a classic. Ultimately Daryl Hall was a soul man, and anyone with working ears would rather hear him sing She’s Gone than holler and squeal his way through NYCNY, however much fun it is. But Sacred Songs is an noble attempt by a substantial artist to push themselves beyond anything they’d done before, and it remains completely fascinating.

hall

No Peace for the Wicked – James McKean

I’m looking at a stack of copies of James McKean’s new album, No Peace for the Wicked. I’ve got a dozen or so of them, shrink-wrapped, piled on my desk. This is a proud day.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and if you are, is this really what you wanted to be doing with your life?), you might have heard me mention James and this record before, most recently when he released the single I Long to Make Your Dreams Come True about a month ago.

James and I met at university, in 2000, in the kitchen (or maybe the corridor) of Goldsmid House. Now demolished to make way for a shiny new glass building on the corners of Oxford Street and North Audley Street*, opposite the big M&S on the corner, Goldsmid House was a concrete student hall owned by University College London, where James was taking law and I was reading English. We bonded over music, started having little jam sessions in each other’s rooms and one way or another have been been playing music together ever since. Back then it was every day or so, playing covers and each other’s songs on acoustic guitars**; nowadays it’s rarer, and more formal: gigs, rehearsals and recording sessions only.

James decided he wanted to make a solo album in, I guess, 2010 and we put it together over the course of a year. Where the River Runs Both Ways was the first record I ever engineered or produced, and it sounds like it, but we had a lot of fun doing it, and there was never much question about whether we’d do another. It was pretty much a given that we would.

Except in 2011, even before the launch gig for River, I’d started to feel just a little bit unwell. Heavy, tired, bloated. Over the next few months it got worse, until on 23 December, my 30th birthday, I was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with heart failure. Again, if I have any regular readers, please feel free to skip. You know this already.

It didn’t look great. Doctors were talking about an LVAD (an artificial pump for patients in end-stage heart failure) and a transplant, but they stabilised me, monitored my condition for a couple of weeks and sent me home to see how things would go before deciding whether to put me on the transplant list.

I had been told it was extremely unlikely I’d ever be well enough to work again, and that no one could tell whether my condition would improve or deteriorate. I just had to be patient while the doctors worked out how to treat me, and spend the time working out what I was going to do with the rest of my life, however long it lasted. I was, penniless, unemployed, living with my father, and with a heart condition that had damn near killed me.

I decided to keep making music. It was all I had, really.

I started writing songs again within a week of being discharged (angry and confused songs, as you can imagine), but even at that point I didn’t know whether I’d ever be well enough to play drums again. I just hoped I would be. The idea of not playing drums was particularly hard to contemplate as I lay in my hospital bed, and I’m not even really a drummer – guitar is my real instrument. Didn’t matter. I wanted to still be able to play the drums.

I don’t know whether it was James or me who suggested he come and stay for a couple of days to work on some new songs, to give me something to do. But he came down about a month after I was discharged, in February 2012. Throwing caution to the wind, I set the drums up, sat behind them and played. At that session we began Silver City Bound, No Peace I Find, an unreleased track called Noah’s Dove and Will Sunbeams Find You. No Peace was later re-recorded from scratch. I had to go back and redo the drum tracks for Silver City Bound and Sunbeams. But I’d sat behind a drum kit and played. OK, I played badly, and OK, just doing a few takes wiped me out, but it was such a huge victory for me to do that. It meant I still had the freedom to make music and record my own stuff the way I love to do, during days that would otherwise be long and purposeless.

So that’s how No Peace for the Wicked started. It took James and me four years to complete. In that time, just about everything in our lives has changed. But this record has been there all the time, waiting for us to haul it over the finish line.

It is, if I may say so myself, a terrific piece of work: James has a huge catalogue of really strong songs, but he chose the perfect ones to include on this the album and sequenced them incredibly well. It really feels like an album, in the old-fashioned sense: like Dark Side of the Moon is an album, like Rumours is an album. I had the pleasure to mix it all, and I got to play on most of the tracks, whether guitar, bass, drums, piano or organ (or sometimes all of them). James pulled together a fabulous team of musicians to play on the record and be part of our ever-expanding team of players for live shows: Kurt Hamilton on pedal steel; James’s brother Dan on guitar and bass; all of the South London band Hoatzin (Kit Jolliffe on drums, Colin Somervell on double bass, Jim Willis on guitar and violin); Noura Sanatian on violin; and Zoe Carassik-Lord and Hana Zushi-Rhodes on backing vocals. These people have done amazing things on these songs, as have Ben Zushi-Rhodes, who mastered the record at Metopolis Studios, and Jon Clayton, who recorded some of the basic tracks at One Cat.

On Sunday evening (27 March), we’ll officially launch the album at the Gladstone Arms in Borough, which has been our home base since before we started Where the River Runs Both Ways, but the album is already on Bandcamp and I urge you to buy it. It’ll be the best £7 you spend in a while.

I’ve had the good fortune to record a lot of very good songs with some very good musicians, but this record means something to me even the best of those don’t. This record is the soundtrack to my recovery, and I’m so thankful to James for letting me be a part of it. I’m so very proud of it.

1James album

*Which means that, yes, I technically lived in Mayfair for a year. That’ll never happen again.
**James’s weapon of choice back then was the fondly recalled “dump guitar”, a battered old classical with a hole in it. Looked like Willie Nelson’s guitar. James actually did retrieve it from a municipal tip where he worked for a spell.

The Ride – Joan as Police Woman

Joan as Police Woman’s first album came out in the summer of 2006, and was the last album I bought* while sharing a house with friends in Ladywell. A few weeks after it came out, I moved back to Southend.

Real Life is a record that’s appropriate to starting a new phase in your life; it seems to have come out of a new phase in Joan Wasser’s. The record’s key lyric (in the title track, which opens the record), “I’ve never included a name in a song/But I’m changing my ways for you Jonathan”, insists that the singer is in a new and better place.

Certain reviews of Real Life made an inevitably big deal of Wasser’s relationship with Jeff Buckley, but to view her through the prism of one relationship is reductive. Over a lifetime many things will happen to most people, and all leave their mark. Real Life is sometimes a serious listen, but it’s also cautiously joyful, playful, meditative, defiant, comforting and sexy. The world is not without  good singers, tight bands, stellar songwriters and (even now, albeit only occasionally) records that sound as good as this, but the range of emotions contained on Real Life’s songs is the album’s distinguishing feature. It’s what gives it an unmistakeable authority.

Much coverage was also dedicated to Wasser’s time playing with Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright. Both at the time were still pretty high-profile artists, so it was understandable, if lazy. But her own work was substantially different to both, although Antony Hegarty guests on I Defy, an album highlight. Instead, Real Life is essentially a soul record with an indie rock sensibility, and when the two strands of Wasser’s work are intertwined so completely as to be indivisible, that’s when the album is most itself. The straightforward rock songs, Eternal Flame (not the Bangles’ one) and Christobel, hint at Wasser’s past in the Dambuilders and her time backing Lou Reed and Tanya Donelly, but Feed the Light, with its uneasy vocal harmony and squealing noises, and Save Me, with its heavy groove and half-whispered, half-yelped interjections of “Save me!”, are where the Real Life is differs from the Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae records that it may sometimes superficially resemble. And of course, both Jones and Bailey Rae have moved a long way from their starting points of MOR jazz and trad. soul revivalism respectively.

But for all this, my two favourites are the ones most obviously derived from 1970s soul: Anyone (“I’m ready to start to be ready…”) with its languorous 6/8 tempo and dominant horn chart, and The Ride, a beautiful, hushed ballad based on electric piano and the sympathetic playing of original bandmembers Rainy Orteca (bass) and Ben Perowsky (drums).

The Ride is one of those perfect songs you only get once every few years. When Wasser’s voice glides from a sleepy alto to its highest register to sing the final chorus, it’s the sound of someone throwing caution to the wind and declaring themselves. It’s exhilarating and moving and triumphant.

Real Life was a stunning record, beautifully recorded by Bryce Goggin: lush and spacious, deep and rich, competitively loud but with drums crystal clear and retaining their punch. It’s one of my favourite records of the last decade, and one I still listen to frequently now.

joan

*From Morps, the record stall in the now closed Lewisham model market
**A post about Bailey Rae’s alt. rock past and time signed to heavy-metal label Roadrunner may one day happen
***He’s played with a huge range of artists, from John Zorn and Joseph Arthur – who guests on Real Life – to Clem Snide and Charles and Eddie

She’s Gone – Hall & Oates

Hall & Oates always seemed to view popular music as a playground for them to have fun in. Many white soul singers and groups have suffered from a purism born of a desire to be taken seriously. Daryl Hall was taken seriously – by Thom Bell, by Gamble & Huff, by Smokey Robinson (who tried to get him signed to Motown), by the Stylistics and the Delfonics, whose members Hall knew when he was a kid (he’s 69 years old – the band have been going since the very early seventies), and by the Temptations, with whom he and Oates struck up an easy friendship.

Knowing that he had the respect of these guys seems to have freed Hall to be whatever he’s wanted to be in the moment, and so his music has ranged far and wide. In the late seventies, it acquired new wave synths. He moved to New York and made a punk-infused art-rock solo album with Robert Fripp, king of gonzoid guitar, before casually returning to pop to become an icon of the early MTV age. In the 1980s, Hall, with his huge mullet, and Oates, with his bubble perm and porn-star moustache, were almost like a cartoon of themselves, and always looked like they were having a hell of a lot of fun.

But at heart, Hall and Oates are soul brothers, and their most enduring and emotionally affecting songs tend to be soul ballads, records like Everytime You Go Away (made famous by Paul Young, but recorded in a bravely minimal gospel style by H&O), Sara Smile and, above any other, She’s Gone.

She’s Gone is one of my favourite records of all time, no question. Top 10, easily. Right up there with Native New Yorker, Wedding Bell Blues (Laura Nyro’s recording, obvs), I Need Your Lovin’, What You Won’t Do For Love and the rest. It’s a masterpiece, and I love everything about it: the A/B to B chord change that 10CC nicked for the intro to I’m Not in Love a couple of years later; the way Hall doubles Oates’s melody in the verses an octave higher before stepping out at the end of each verse, letting the words pour out of him, as if from some from unhealable wound; the masterful string and brass arrangement; the bluesy guitar in the intro; Bernard Purdie’s patient shuffle on the drums. It’s all wonderful.

That’s before we get to what’s probably the finest key change in popular music. Unearned within their songs, most key changes fall flat. They signify no emotional release, only the idea that a raising of pitch might have been connected in some way to a raising of the emotional stakes in some other song in the past, and so might work again here, in some Pavlovian fashion. This “X Factor” key change has given them a deserved bad name. When I noticed Lou Barlow incorporating key changes into a couple of songs on his recent record, I had to stand up and applaud his bravery.- few serious songwriters risk it these days.

The key change in She’s Gone is the opposite of the lazy key change. For a start it happens late in a song filled with patient build-up and intelligent lyrical detail. Moreover it comes about in semi-tonal increments, with the listener unsure what key the song’s going to land in. It becomes a dare: when we arrive, finally, at whatever key we’re going to be in, are the singers going to be able to hit the high notes still? It’s like Hall & Oates are setting themselves a challenge, egging the band on to keep raising the bar, always confident they’ll be able to clear it. But the actual key change is accompanied by a kind of emotional key change too, from grief to something very close to joy – the journey taken by so much of the best soul music. So much of the best music, full stop.

If you only know Hall & Oates as the group that did Maneater, or Private Eyes, or even Rich Girl, She’s Gone is the song to make you permanently re-evaluate them.

Hall-Oates

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 7: Nights on Broadway – The Bee Gees

Nights on Broadway is, as much as any other song, the one where the Bee Gees become the Bee Gees that live on in popular memory, the late-seventies Bee Gees of wide collars, tight trousers, leonine hair and innumerable bad impressions.

The latter is of course the key. The first single from 1975’s Main Course was the deathless Jive Talkin’, with its squelchy synth bass, disco bass drum and the metrical tricks (in the instrumental section) of which Barry Gibb was always fond. And unlike Nights on Broadway, Jive Talkin’ is on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. But Gibb sang Jive Talkin’ in a something like a conspiratorial whisper, with the falsetto in the chorus harmony coming from Maurice, until then the usual supplier of the highest vocal parts on Bee Gees records.

But while recording Nights on Broadway, producer Arif Mardin asked the brothers if any of them could scream in tune, Barry gave it a go and for ever after the Bee Gees had a new hook: not so much a scream as a piercing bleat, it could drown out traffic noise, the din in bars and clubs, any amount of general background noise. Some records just cut through in this way, seem to come out of the radio twice as loud as all the others. Thanks to Barry’s falsetto, every new Bee Gees song did this. Perhaps that’s why they became as huge as they did.

A readily identifiable sonic signature sure helps a band to become huge, but if you want to play R&B music – and it can’t be stressed enough that in 1975 that’s what the Bee Gees thought they were doing: Jive Talkin’ was not custom-built as a disco song – you simply have to have a great rhythm section.

The Bee Gees did. Maurice Gibb remains an underrated bass player, but the drummer they had in their glory days, Cardiff-born Dennis Bryon (a veteran of Amen Corner), is criminally overlooked.

Sometimes it’s easier to hear why one version of a song works by comparing it to a performance that doesn’t. When the Bee Gees played Nights on Broadway live in the late 1980s in Melbourne on their One for All tour, it was all wrong. The tempo was too quick, and the drummer pushed both kick and snare until he sounded half a bpm ahead of the band. Contrast that with Dennis Bryon’s masterly studio take and an excellent live version on the Midnight Special. It’s a busy performance – complicated kick drum pattern, 16th notes on the hats, frenetic whole-kit fills – but a tasteful one, full of little details, in the hats especially. Listening to his drum track soloed allows you to hear how he accented certain strokes and underplayed others, giving the 16ths on the hats a rising and falling feel within each bar. 16th notes of unvarying dynamic would get really boring really quickly. The groove just wouldn’t be the same.

Bryon’s abiliity to insert a shape to an 8th- or 16th-note hi-hat pattern was key to what made him so perfect for the Bee Gees during their disco years, when a great deal of their songs were built on top of the same basic 120bpm, four-to-the-floor chassis. While Nights on Broadway wasn’t a disco track rhythmically, it shows all the qualities he brought to that kind of material while also displaying his ability to play more complex patterns with the same easy musicality.

Dennis Bryon
Dennis Bryon, funky Welshman